Matthew Motta is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma State University. APSA interviewed him about his experience working with the media, writing for the public, and informing his research through public engagement.
You were a Science of Science Communication Fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. How did that experience influence your work now?
One of the interesting things about my research is that, in addition to studying the science of science communication, science communication itself is something I get to do pretty regularly. I get to both study this phenomenon and participate in it. In that sense, my research and my research outreach are mutually reinforcing.
It’s also useful to use the experiences of talking to the press and the public to inform the types of questions we ask in our scholarly research.
One example that hadn’t really occurred to me until I started talking to journalists about vaccine skepticism in the US is that a lot of reporters think of the anti-vaccine movement as being the alpha and omega of vaccine skepticism. But what we know from public opinion research is that it is much broader than that–that people who are not self-proclaimed anti-vaxxers hold views that are inconsistent with the science. That’s something I wouldn’t have thought about if I hadn’t talked to journalists about this. That knowledge informed a series of studies that my coauthors and I are currently working on and trying to publish exploring the prevalence of vaccine skepticism beyond anti-vaxxers.
What motivates you to write for the public?
I personally feel like this one of the most enjoyable part of the job. I feel like the public, for so many of us doing academic and scholarly work, are our bosses. For those of us working at public universities, they are the people who pay our salaries, and who I think we need to connect with. Yes, it matters to me that our work gets cited and informs the scholarly literature, of course. But I also want to take that research and translate it for a mass audience in a way that everyone can not only understand, but also use in their daily lives, or in the work that they do.
I feel like my university, Oklahoma State, does a really great job of trying to connect scholars and the public. For example, Oklahoma State is partnered with The Conversation. For those who might not be familiar, The Conversation is an outlet which allows scholars to directly communicate their research findings with mass audiences. The organization will place pieces in local newspapers and national outlets as well. In writing for The Conversation, we’ve had our research covered in not only dozens of local papers but also in outlets like Newsweek. So, you get to reach a lot people that way.
What advice would you give someone getting started?
There are a few things that I like to do that could potentially be useful to junior faculty and graduate students. The first thing that is really important is to just put yourself out there. That means maintaining an active social media presence, if social media is your thing. Monitor the news, for issues that might crop up from time to time related to your area of expertise. And one thing I think people don’t think enough about is reaching out to your university relations department. Most universities have a department that specializes in taking experts in the university and pairing them with policymakers and journalists, etc. and helping formulate those connections.
The second is to make time for engagement. I like to think of research outreach and public engagement as part of the job. If you’re a junior faculty member, many of us have department-specific service requirements. We often lump things that aren’t department related into that category, like peer review. I see no reason why we can’t include research outreach in that category. Translating research, like I said before, to mass audiences is one of the most important things I think we do as scholars. So making time for that service is very important.The first thing that is really important is to just put yourself out there. That means maintaining an active social media presence, if social media is your thing. Monitoring the news, for issues that might crop up from time to time related to your area of expertise.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of that, I usually carve out at least couple hours a week to monitor the news, to set up interviews, to read papers that might be relevant to my area of expertise, and to tweet or post on social media. Crafting social media posts can be time consuming, so I think it’s important to set aside time to write those messages.
The third thing I would advise, is once you have a platform, use your platform to elevate the work of other scholars. That’s not only a good thing normatively, to share the insights of your friends and peers, but it’s also a good way to build contacts and meet potential collaborators. If you tag someone in a tweet you may not know all that well and say “Hey, I really like your research and I think it’s really relevant to this issue,” that can be a way to develop not just a friendship but potentially a co-authorship or collaboration.
One final thought is that personally, for me, the way I was able to start doing research outreach was in part just by talking to faculty I knew did that kind of work a lot. I reasoned that if they’re getting lots of interview requests, then they might be getting more than they can handle. Sometimes, they may be getting too many, so I let them know that I can take interviews off their hands if they ever need someone to step in and do that. So talk to people in your department who are doing this type of work and ask them to help you get involved.
Has there been an experience engaging publicly that was particularly valuable or meaningful to you?
This is a funny one. In the lead up to the 2016 election, just a few days before election day, I went on the local NBC affiliate in Minneapolis and said very strongly, in no uncertain terms, that Donald Trump would never win the presidential race. And I learned something very important from that interview—which is that while it’s not always productive to talk to the public the way political scientists talk to themselves, with lots of caveats and lots of probabilistic statements, it’s important to not over-correct. You should never say anything in no uncertain terms, and you should never commit to something so strongly that you can’t then walk it back. In this case, I would have never made such a strong claim talking to another political scientist. But talking to the public, I thought well, it’s highly unlikely and maybe I can push it a little bit. And I learned from that. It’s a good way to have egg on your face after a political event.
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